Why the Left has seized upon Harry Potter as an exegesis for Trump and the zeitgeist
Part I— …and the Tweets of [fire emoji]
If you’ve been on twitter—or your preferred medium for social media—within the past year or so, you may have noticed that America had an election.
Bit of a quaint affair; barely anyone went to the inauguration. Anyhow, there’s been a bit of a hullabaloo over things generally being pretty shit. One fad that took on pretty hard, especially post-election, was comparing the political situation (and certain political-actors-who-shall-not-be-named-but-you-know-who-they-are) to Harry Potter.
There were some tweets:
And even some commentary from the author herself:
There were more serious ventures, like this full-blown study (published in a peer-reviewed journal!) claiming that Harry Potter readers are more likely to dislike Donald Trump. Or this 27-page dissertation on the similarities between Donald J. Trump and Tom Marvolo Riddle.
In conclusion, there has been more than a bit of interest in tying current political events to the culture and world of Harry Potter.
The question I’m interested in answering is “Why?”—but first, we need to take a bit of a digression to build some background.
Part II—…and the Chamber of Echoes
This phenomenon has not gone unnoticed.
In addition to simply compiling collections of tweets lambasting Betsy DeVos as an Umbridge-esque figure, some bloggers and writers have gone a step further into the dreaded realm of analysis.
YES! Magazine posits that “Dystopian literature memes have become a popular post-election coping mechanism” and then goes on to suggest 6 helpful lessons from Harry Potter, including, but not limited to: “Defy authority”, “Embrace vulnerability”, and “Love is important — in an unexpected way”. [Editor’s note: This is the sneakiest listicle I’ve ever read. Didn’t realize until I was four items in.]
Merry Jane, a cannabis-themed media platform, takes a different tack: comparing politics to Harry Potter is “One of the Stupidest Things You Can Do”.
When you compare politics to the Harry Potter series, Hunger Games, or even 1984, you are implying that those who support your opponent either haven’t read those books or they don’t understand them.
But the most interesting take (that I’ve read) comes from a conservative blogger, SpottedToad. It’s a long post, but worth the read if this is the kind of thing you’re into. I’ll summarize here:
Harry Potter, especially the movies, is about the legitimacy of authority that comes from schools.
The blog asserts that this authority is compelling, and a recent development contrasting heavily with anti-authority vibes in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Wargames, and other rebellious movies and books of the past half century.
the culmination of all the films comes as a direct attack on the school itself, with the various legitimate teachers coming together to form a shield protecting it from the assaults by the outside world
It is this authority under siege, the blog insists, that is a connecting link. Harry Potter is, according to the writer, an idealized form of scholastic institutional legitimacy.
Perhaps the Harry Potter phenomenon allowed its fans to participate in the dream of an ideal community, even if the real thing remains as elusive as the complaining murmur of the Hogwarts Express vanishing in the distance.
Someone’s still a bit salty about not getting their Hogwarts letter.
But we’ve gotten ahead of ourselves—we still haven’t said exactly what Potterheads are doing. Are they analogies? allusions? extended metaphors?
Part III—…and the Half-Baked Theory
Let’s get straight to the point. What’s being done here, by Harry Potter fans, is hermeneutics.
While it’s true that there are elements of allegory, analogy, and allusion (to name just a few), the most encompassing, economical term is hermeneutic.
1. a method or theory of interpretation.
There are a few important characteristics to be found in these comparisons, which taken together, make them an example of a hermeneutic.
On the surface, a tweet like “Does it feel like Voldemort just took over the Ministry of Magic?” seems like it could be just an allusion, albeit an incredibly overt one. Like an allusion, it draws from a shared understanding of Harry Potter and the political climate. Readers of the tweet are expected to know these details, and thus receive the intended message: “Some bad shit just went down.”
But in this case, perhaps the most salient part of the tweet is not to deliver the message “some bad shit just went down.” Rather, the important part of the tweet lies in the “cultural solidarity” between the tweeter and the reader. (See: Lin Manuel-Miranda’s tweet above for a more explicit example.)
What I mean by cultural solidarity is not… academic. I’m using the term to encompass an inside joke, the bond between two people who speak the same language in a foreign country, the tacit understanding between people in the same clique. It’s a sort of signal of familiarity. A “Hi, we’re on the same wavelength,” if you will.
These connections and the recognition of the connections are not insignificant. Especially in uncertain and—in the eyes of many—quasi-apocalyptic times like these, creating rapport and community can’t be discounted.
But if allusions are meant to be brief, glancing references in a broader work, what then to make of the ubiquity of this fad? What about the more explicit claims that Trump resembles (or is worse than) Voldemort?
Fantastic interpretations and how to crowdsource them
If one veiled reference to Trump is an allusion and two is coincidence, three or more must be a pattern. The question is: How does this pattern of thought work? What governs it?
To begin with, I think it’s clear that most people who are thinking, talking, or writing about similarities between Harry Potter and the current political landscape are not doing so in a void. The cultural solidarity that exists here isn’t just Rowling’s corpus of novels and the movies, but other tweets and thinkpieces and discussions themselves (including this one). So although there may be some people who brilliantly thought of the similarities (apropos of nothing) three months after the election results, we’re going to focus on the vast majority of people not living under rocks.
The fact that Harry Potter fans are in communication with one another is vital for creating and actively developing a method of interpretation. For example, here’s a growing list of a cast of Trump’s “Death Eaters” courtesy of reddit.
This hermeneutic is a crowdsourced theory. Perhaps the best example of this is the following AskReddit thread:
Interpretations build off one another: Trump is Voldemort (hair notwithstanding), ergo Trump has horcruxes. This is a relatively complex theory. Not only is there a base comparison, but there are multiple corollaries, each making liberal use of Harry Potter lore and real world politics.
Now, you might ask: Aren’t there examples of extended metaphors that do the same? Isn’t Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials not just full of Biblical imagery, but an allegory and response to Paradise Lost? What about the extensive symbolism in, say, The Scarlet Letter?
Metaphors moste foul
A metaphor is generally considered to have two parts, commonly termed the “target” and the “source”. For this metaphor:
Voldemort is Trump
“Voldemort” is the source while “Trump” is the target. Trump thus receives the attributes previously attached to Voldemort.
An allegory, being a sort of extended metaphor, could latch onto broader concepts, like Harry Potter and the political landscape.
But an allegory, like a metaphor, is not something that people do in tweets. From Wikipedia:
Writers or speakers typically use allegories as literary devices or as rhetorical devices that convey hidden meanings through symbolic figures, actions, imagery, and/or events, which together create the moral, spiritual, or political meaning the author wishes to convey.
It is important to remember that these are literary and rhetorical devices not for some vague sense of pedantic satisfaction, but because there is difference in their utility. Allegories, metaphors, allusions—all of these are used within art to aid and alter the reader’s interpretation of said art.
Understanding these techniques can no doubt help the reader or the viewer or the listener grasp important truths about the real world. But the techniques themselves are artistic tools for an artistic medium.
What is being done requires more than that. It not simply a meme to be passed and shared around, but a theory of interpretation. It is an exegesis of Harry Potter to understand Trump.
Most tweets don’t quite merit Talmudic standards of interpretation. Harry Potter comparisons will (probably) never be codified by scholars as a legitimate approach to understanding Trump and the 2016 election. Future historians will turn largely to boring things like data, historical accounts, and the archives of the still extant New York Times. Not the Harry Potter books and movies.
But this nascent and (likely) short-lived hermeneutic matters right now, insofar as there are people who use it and experience it.
Part IV — …and the Philosoraptor’s Meme
Now that I’ve spent nearly 1,000 words belaboring the point that this phenomenon is a hermeneutic and how it functions, it’s probably worth at least getting into a few details about why it works so well, which will lead us into our real endgame: Why Harry Potter?
Broadly speaking, the hermeneutic is an interpretative scheme. It relies on knowledge of the source (Harry Potter) and sometimes, knowledge of the target (politics/Trump/etc.).
[Important sidenote: In many cases, a reader will be unfamiliar with political information (e.g., Who Betsy DeVos is and what she believes). By connecting DeVos with Umbridge, the reader can understand who DeVos is, like a roman á clef.
For readers familiar with DeVos, the effect is less informational and more about reinforcing the emotional response.]
But why should this sort of hermeneutic work? Harry Potter is a series about British teens with magic wooden dowels. It’s a far cry from an in-depth political analysis or literature that centers around racism/fascism/xenophobia/etc.
The best way to understand this is to look at other hermeneutics—like those of the Bible. Why do they work? Two words: buy in. For the hermeneutic to be effective, the reader not only has to be familiar with the source material, but also agree with the conclusions therein. (Someone who sympathizes with, say, the Empire’s efforts to exert order will not be able to use hermeneutics which see the Rebels as good, a priori.)
In this same vein, the Harry Potter hermeneutics work when the reader agrees with certain assumptions about the politics of Harry Potter—namely that a central theme of the series was fighting oppression and discrimination.
Most everyone who read/watched Harry Potter agrees on the moral lessons espoused in the series (discrimination against muggles is bad; Voldemort is evil, etc.)—the question is more about whether or not they see parallels in real life. But if you buy into those parallels, the hermeneutic can be a very powerful tool by eliding over specifics with its layering of the source material over the target. There’s not really any need to debate the finer points of policy if it’s perceived as something Voldemort would do.
(A quick caveat: Much of what the Trump administration has done is, IMO, blatantly morally repugnant and not something that requires a particular amount of nuance to debate.)
Utility exists in the quick and easy answers gained by consulting Harry Potter and applying the hermeneutic to the Trump administration. Does that mean these answers are necessarily wrong, or even inaccurate? No. Sometimes they’re right on the nose; particularly apt.
And so we reach the question I originally posed: Why are they apt? Why does it work well? Why is it Harry Potter that was chosen for this hermeneutic?
Part V— …and the Order of 1 lg. Nostalgia
Do you recognize this?
Maybe this will jog your memory.
If you weren’t instantly taken back to memories of magic, overpowered by the nostalgia and wonder of a story, and moved by how much it impacted you, you might want to stop reading this right now and refresh your memory.
John Williams’ iconic theme — the simple leitmotif of B-D#-F-A# — is a powerful conjuring trick.
Darkened Privet Drive and the arrival of the slim figure of Albus Dumbledore; the gateway of Diagon Alley crumbling gracefully away to reveal another world; the sight of Hogwarts looming over the dark waters of the Great Lake.
Where Tchaikovsky conjured scenes of sugar plum fairies, Williams conjured distilled emotion, repeating the leitmotif again and again (a total of 10 times in the first 18 minutes).
Perhaps the mnemonic staying power of Harry Potter should come as no surprise. This is, after all, a series so popular that it sold over 400 million books and grossed about $10 billion from movies. Its global cultural currency impact is undoubtedly greater than that of some countries.
Harry Potter is a worldwide phenomenon, and it is especially beloved in the U.S.
Helen of Troy had the face which launched one thousand ships, but J.K. Rowling had the story which launched millions of “Potterheads” — devotees who remain attached to the story long after the last page.
In short: Harry Potter is a ubiquitous phenomenon of almost unrivaled popularity that allows millions to appreciate the hermeneutic. That alone is an important and necessary qualification, but it’s not enough.
Part VI— …and the Prisoner of Ambiguities
One of the most interesting parts about the Harry Potter hermeneutic is that it is largely contained to the canon of the seven original books. This, despite the fact that last year saw the release of a Harry Potter movie about an evil fascist infiltrating America and seizing the dark emotions of downtrodden, superstitious, working class white people.
Forgive me, here come more thinkpieces
There was some chatter, but it was primarily not in the form of memes or pithy tweets. Instead, there were essays about Jon Voight’s political affiliation and this conclusion from a Guardian columnist extolling the virtues of even Twilight:
What people of my generation and older often fail to appreciate is the depth of indoctrination of tolerance for anyone under 30. Their literature, their cinema, all sings from the same hymn sheet. Harry Potter, X-Men, The Hunger Games, Twilight are all progressive propaganda. Fantastic Beasts, JK Rowling’s surprisingly delightful expansion of the Harry Potter universe, makes it even more explicit. It is a cautionary tale about the risks of repressing your inner nature. It sounds a clarion call for increased integration, including the abolition of a ban on Muggle/Wizard relationships. It shows how proto-dictators must be voted out before, like President Snow in The Hunger Games, they seize power and rescind our liberties.
[Someone should probably tell her that Voldemort fought to break the Statute of Secrecy (albeit to rule over Muggles), and that Harry and co. fought him to prevent that.]
Anyhow, several other writers concluded that Fantastic Beasts was political. The Times, for instance, capitalized heavily on the politics of the movie in their review.
Mr. Heyman said that the film’s “incredibly humanist message” reflected the times but was not new. “The Malfoys and Voldemort were echoes of Nazis,” he said. “These are themes of Jo’s that have interested her forever. Now maybe it feels more acute or more relevant, but I don’t think we set out to make a political film with a capital P. This is an entertainment with themes that resonate across time. Alas, some of the issues we face in this film are timeless.”
But the really interesting response comes from this Washington Post article that lays into the lack of moral ambiguities in Rowling’s universe.
On one side of the battlefield in the original novels stood middle-class and public-service-minded families such as the Weasleys, muggles, wizards of muggle extraction including Hermione Granger, liberated house-elves, giants and centaurs who break with their communities’ separatist instincts, intellectuals and free-press advocates. On the other, we found a small group of wealthy fascists, obsessed with blood purity and domination, defined by their grand, cold aesthetics, who periodically seize power by force.
The writer goes on to talk about how potential issues with this narrative are waved away.
When someone who properly belongs on one side of the divide crosses over to another, such as bus conductor Stan Shunpike, who ends up in the company of Death Eaters, it’s because he is under magical mind control, not because he genuinely shares Voldemort’s politics.
Now, there are certainly morally complex characters in Harry Potter—Snape, Dumbledore, and Narcissa Malfoy all come to mind—but the politics of Harry Potter are still rather uncomplicated.
The fundamental task of politics in the “Harry Potter” universe is to resist authoritarianism, which is a noble goal, and one that’s absolutely relevant to the winds of change raking Europe and the United States. But the way that work is accomplished in J.K. Rowling’s world is to stop a small minority who have illicitly gained power from bamboozling and abusing the masses, who are either presented as apolitical or on the side of right.
Ironically, you can see exactly the opposite sentiment in Rowling’s essay on Remain, from last summer.
It is dishonourable to suggest, as many have, that Leavers are all racists and bigots: they aren’t and it is shameful to suggest that they are. Nevertheless, it is equally nonsensical to pretend that racists and bigots aren’t flocking to the ‘Leave’ cause, or that they aren’t, in some instances, directing it.
Anywho, we’re still left with the question: Why is the Harry Potter hermeneutic confined mostly to the canon despite the more explicit parallels in a recent, fairly successful film?
The answer, I think, is somewhat ambiguous. But looking to other literature and its lack of accompanying hermeneutic for the Trump phenomenon can clear some things up.
Subheads are 4 Hufflepuffs
George Orwell’s iconic novel, 1984 has recently regained cultural prominence, leaping to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list. And yet, there isn’t the surfeit of memes or interpretations. It’s telling that instead people simply quote from it, saying “we’ve always been at war with eastasia” or “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Knowledge.”
There’s no need to interpret it. There’s no work to be done. Apply directly to the forehead.
Now, you might make the case that Orwell’s book isn’t as widespread or accessible as Harry Potter. But even if we turn to Star Wars or The Hunger Games or The Handmaid’s Tale, I think we see the same sort of situation: things are too explicit.
The literature and the totality of the plot is centrally focused on authoritarian regimes. Harry Potter, for all of its espoused morals and the drama of the final few books, is primarily about a young boy growing up and finding a home in a magical world.
And that means that there’s work to be done. There’s creativity in the interpretation. That creativity is entertainment value, and a challenge of sorts: “How can I fit this within the hermeneutic?”
That’s not to say those who are using this meme are twisting and warping Harry Potter—it really is a story that has strong undercurrents of humanitarian thought, and the plot of the final few books is a fight against an oppressive force hell-bent on hurting minorities and subjugating the weak.
But is that all? Is that the only undercurrent that might motivate young progressives to pick Harry Potter?
Part VII — …and the Deathly Conclusion
Which brings me back to one of the articles I mentioned a few thousand words ago.
If you recall, the article’s main point is this:
Harry Potter, especially the movies, is about the legitimacy of authority that comes from schools.
On its face, this doesn’t seem like it necessarily has to challenge the notion that humanitarian ideals are the central driving force behind choosing Harry Potter over other literature. Indeed, it’s possible for both to coexist on some level.
But I think a closer inspection reveals that the comfort and security of Harry Potter (enshrined in the nostalgia of Hogwarts, which all readers are graduates of) may be even more important than its ideals.
The Hunger Games series in particular offers a strong counterpoint. Although it has been used as a pointed critique and a reference to the authoritarian… it’s surely not at the top of most lists for comfort reading. There’s no magic in its bleak landscape, no nostalgia for warmly lit common rooms.
Harry Potter has all this and more, in spades. Even the darkest moments are irreparably marred by the tenderness that suffuses the story. Sirius isn’t just rescued; Harry gains a godfather. Arthur Weasley doesn’t just get injured; his family joins together around his bedside. Dumbledore doesn’t just die; Snape saves Draco’s innocence by casting Avada Kedavra, at Dumbledore’s heartfelt request.
In an interesting counterpoint, this article from a very liberal writer touches on some of the same conclusions: namely that Potterheads may not quite be accurately translating morals from Harry Potter (a very non-radical book) to their own radically leftist ends.
Potter-themed memes emerge wherever young people are disappointed by society’s failure to deliver on the basic middle-class promises of human decency, social mobility, and authority that doesn’t run too rampant. During the British student protests of 2010, when young people took to the streets by the tens of thousands to protest the rising costs of higher education, I saw countless hand-drawn placards with variations on the theme of “Dumbledore wouldn’t stand for this.” Dumbledore, of course, was the steward of an arbitrarily exclusive school, but it’s the idea of Dumbledore that matters — the idea of fairness and opportunity for those who have the talent.
The author goes on to a number of interesting conclusions (and if you do read any of the works that I’ve linked to, let this be the one).
Harry Potter lives in a world where evil is identifiable and can be vanquished, a world where kindness, friendship, and courage can triumph over bigotry and cowardice when a few good people make the right choices.
This lack of political complexity, the author infers, is due to Rowling’s own political stances.
Young and not-so-young fans who are disappointed that Rowling turns out to be a pink-hearted, middle-of-the-road liberal may be engaging in a sort of sympathetic magic: if we can read our favorite stories as revolutionary, maybe we can rewrite our own stories, too.
There are a number of other extremely interesting points to be made (that the author makes), such as how Barthes’ notion of the death of the author applies to Rowling, but the central notion, and where this liberal thinkpiece starts to converge with the conservative thinkpiece, lies in escapism.
Harry Potter is about escape from many things: poverty, mediocrity, and child abuse, all of which are offered in rustic caricature in order to defuse their relation to real trauma.
This escapism applies not just to Harry Potter the character, but to its readers.
The Harry Potter books are a childish rescue fantasy that feeds into a far more adult escapism: they are, after all, the ultimate fairytale of social mobility through merit. If you’re born with magical ability, you get to go to a special school where they’ll teach you special skills, and that’s okay, because you’ll be part of the good elite, who get to mess around catching pixies and playing wizard chess and protecting the powerless, and not the bad elite, who are like Nazis with better hair.
And yet, this is not a radically liberal or progressive universe. It is a universe where wizards scoff at using their magic to help Muggles, and instead live in ivory towers, hiding their powers.
In fact, the whole wizarding world is fundamentally small-c conservative — even for a Young Adult fantasy.
Ironically, it has been this universe that has become a cultural touchstone for progressive values. And it does have those, to be sure. But they are tame in nature. It’s easy to condemn and fight the Death Eaters. It’s a lot harder to fight for House-elf liberation—something that makes our heroine into laughingstock by our hero, and by extension readers who also view knitting hats to free slaves as risible.
Still, it is Harry Potter. And it is inseparable from childhood and magic and feelings that would put a mixture of Felix Felicis and Amortentia to shame.
The Potterverse functions, in many ways, as a Patronus charm — a shot of hope in the dark at the point of collapse. Fight the despair that threatens to drown you by hanging on to the happiest memory you have. And take what is useful from the simple shared language of magic and escapism.
But I’ve gone a few inches over the parchment limit, so in conclusion: Harry Potter was chosen by the Left because:
- Mass appeal
- Relevant plot
- Humanitarian ideals